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Yeltsin dismisses security minister: New crisis for Russian leader as conservatives back official accused of nepotism

BORIS YELTSIN, who has returned early from holiday to find his government in disarray and his conservative opponents on the offensive, yesterday accused his Security Minister, Viktor Barannikov, of mismanagement and nepotism and sacked him. Almost immediately Mr Yeltsin's arch-rival, the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, defied the Russian President by saying that Russia needed General Barannikov's professional skills and that MPs should assemble to restore him to his post.

Despite his victory in the April referendum and his attempts to draw up a new Russian constitution, Mr Yeltsin still finds himself mired in a power struggle with the Soviet-era parliament and every move he makes is countered by Mr Khasbulatov. Accusations and counter-accusations of incompetence and corruption are among the main weapons of this dirty political war.

Mr Yeltsin does have some reason to be dissatisfied with General Barannikov. Earlier this month 25 Russian soldiers helping newly independent Tajikistan to guard its frontier with Afghanistan were killed in an artillery attack launched from Afghan territory by rebel Tajiks who were the losers in last year's civil war. On Monday Mr Yeltsin sacked the commander of the border guards and let General Barannikov off with an official reprimand for having been 'completely unprepared' for the cross-border attack.

What then made Mr Yeltsin decide to sack the general yesterday? Tass said the President told leaders of the Security Ministry, formerly the KGB, that General Barannikov had 'violated ethical norms' by using 'commercial structures' to send his relatives on trips abroad. Perhaps Mr Yeltsin had just found out about this and it added to his anger over the security lapse on the border. Or perhaps the President sensed that General Barannikov was not loyal to him anymore. Certainly Mr Khasbulatov was quick to rush to the general's defence, calling his dismissal 'an attempt . . . to crush the organs of law and order by stripping them of all professionals'.

Mr Yeltsin cut short his holiday in northern Russia on Sunday on the advice of liberals who said that, in his absence, the parliament was mounting a new challenge to his market reforms. The newspaper Izvestia went as far as to hint that another coup was being plotted, two years after hardliners attempted to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev. Among parliament's unilateral steps which so concerned the liberals were votes to slow down privatisation, double the budget deficit and prosecute one of the architects of Mr Yeltsin's reforms, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko, for alleged embezzlement.

As if this were not enough, Mr Yeltsin also came home to a huge row in government and society about a money reform launched by the Central Bank on Saturday. It is still not clear whether the President knew about and approved of the decision to withdraw pre-1993 roubles from circulation but he is certainly getting the blame for it from angry members of the public, and his decree on Monday increasing the amount of old money which can be changed for new has only partly calmed their panic and fury.

Yesterday the head of the Central Bank, Viktor Gerashchenko, defended the reform, saying the aim was to force other former Soviet republics still using the rouble to decide whether they wanted their own currencies or whether they would stick with the Russian unit and accept the leading role of Moscow in their economic decision-making that that would entail.

But, despite denials of a split from Economics Minister Oleg Lobov, the cabinet was clearly divided over the reform supported by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. The Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai and Finance Minister, Boris Fyodorov, both liberals, have attacked it as economically illiterate and likely to aggravate the delicate political situation.

The interesting question is what was Mr Khasbulatov's role? Although Mr Gerashchenko said yesterday that the 'top leadership of the country' had been informed in advance of the money reform, the parliamentary chairman has denied that he was consulted. He certainly should have known about it for the Central Bank answers to parliament, not the government.